Thursday, December 03, 2009

Book Review: "Bugs and the Victorians"

J.F.M. Clark's Bugs and the Victorians (Yale University Press, 2009) is a testament to the immense usefulness and potential of interdisciplinary scholarship. Through a close examination of the field of entomology and its practitioners in 19th-century Britain, Clark reveals just how interconnected the practical study of insects was with such far-flung pursuits as political philosophy, theology, agriculture, medicine, economics, and medicine (among others). "As a pluralistic science," Clark writes, "still well within the domain of general culture, nineteenth-century entomology offers a fascinating perspective on the varied social roles of persons engaged in the production and dissemination of science" (p. 244).

To trace the related but separate trends of "secularization, professionalization, discipline formation, and the emergence of the expert" through British entomology over the course of a century or so, Clark frames his chapters around several notable individuals (many of which I confess I'd not heard of before opening his book), including William Kirby and William Spence (authors of the influential Introduction to Entomology), John Lubbock (a friend of Darwin's, who tamed wasps and observed ants), and Eleanor Ormerod (an expert agricultural entomologist who was an early advocate for the use of insecticides in Britain and pushed for the utter extermination of the house sparrow).

With useful synopses and lessons drawn from their careers and publications, Clark puts his subjects to good use in making his broad point: "ideas about insects must be located in a broader cultural history. Ideas about the natural world are products of a particular time and place. They are shaped by moral, political, economic and religious contexts" (p. 2). By incorporating numerous illustrations of newspaper cartoons, title pages, advertisements into the text, Clark makes his point even more clearly.

Forty pages of detailed notes and a 25-page bibliography provide much additional ground for those interested in one aspect or another of this deeply-researched and entirely useful book.

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